Ask Iwata

I recently finished reading “Ask Iwata,” a compendium of writings from Nintendo’s legendary CEO, Satoru Iwata. The small collection was compiled from pieces he wrote for Nintendo’s Iwata Asks (from which the book’s name is taken) as well as from pieces on the Hobonichi website (in Japanese). There’s a lot in the book about both people management as well as a more in-depth explanation of what Iwata really meant when he said, famously, “a programmer should never say, ‘No.'” that I think are incredibly applicable to people in any field. But the book is, fundamentally, about making games. Game development is a wonderfully weird job, an magical mixture of both the technical and the artistic. But it’s often hard to describe what exactly it is that it means to make a game. While it’s obviously not an elevator-ready answer, I think that anyone who wants to know, at a very high level but also at a very substantive level, what game development is all about should read this book.

On innovation, Iwata focused on “blue ocean” strategies. The Nintendo DS and Wii were both examples of a bold reimagining of what a game console could be. And this gets to the heart of what Iwata meant when he said, “a programmer should never say, ‘No.'” Iwata was relentlessly obsessed not only with what was possible, but what could be possible. In that statement, he was exhorting programmers to find a way. To think about how a problem might be solved. While a great many aspects of games are about solving known problems, to make a game truly special, it must solve at least one problem in a totally novel way. Games must explore new territory somewhere. This is the real heart of game development. The answer may eventually be, “No.” Or, “Not now.” But I think Iwata is right that it is the job of those who are charged with the technical aspects of game development should try to find ways to realize the vision of those who, by virtue of not knowing what they can’t or shouldn’t do or simply an unwillingness to accept it, are thinking outside of the box of current possibility.

As I thought what this meant for the work that I do and, more generally, for the game that I make, I came across this passage, tucked away in the end-notes section of a chapter titled, “The Games Iwata Strives To Make.” It covers the challenges of online gaming. Generally speaking, Nintendo games are most famously single-player, PvE (player-vs-enemy) games. Mario and Legend of Zelda being perhaps the two most iconic Nintendo games that demonstrate this truth, along with Metroid (my own personal favorite Nintendo game) and many others. Their most iconic PvP (player-vs-player) franchise – Super Smash Bros. – differs from traditional fighting games in that victory comes through a sumo-esque out-of-the-ring win rather than via knockout; even when Nintendo ventured into competition, they did it differently.

Iwata repeatedly stresses throughout the book that his driving purpose in his work and in his life is to make people happy, and PvP games walk a very thin line here. Happiness isn’t solely correlated with winning, but they are certainly related. Generally speaking, winning is more fun than losing. And in every PvP game, there will be a player who is a winner and a player who is a loser. And, in many MMOs, there will often be many losers for every one winner. In Apex, for example, 19 squads – 57 players – will lose every match of Battle Royale – and 1 squad – 3 players – will win. And skill is typically distributed in an anormal way, such that good players tend to dominate; matches of 20 squads does not mean you can expect to win 1-in-20 matches.

Virtually every major PvP game sees significant complaints about SBMM (skill-based match-making), which aims to put players of similar skill levels together to help ensure reasonably fair competition. But SBMM is very challenging in a number of technical ways – “skill” is a bit like pornography, easy to recognize, but hard to quantify. And also in various subjective ways – how wide should the spread be between skill levels? How much longer is a player willing to wait to play a “more fair” match rather than a “less fair” match? How does relative skill balance against other fundamental experiential in-match concerns like latency? These are all major areas of significant investment and research in an attempt to objectively quantify these answers into data that is actionable.

But fundamentally, a huge part of the problem with SBMM is what I think of as the “Lake Wobegon problem,” a slight derivation of the “Lake Wobegon effect,” from Garrison Keillor’s famous, “A Prairie Home Companion.” Basically, everyone wants to be “above-average,” which is of course impossible. Iwata’s solution to this problem was to generally avoid it. But I think that the past twenty-plus years has shown the fundamental appeal of competitive online gaming as does the growing acceptance of esports. Just as with traditional sports, though, there is a real danger in an excessive focus on competition and on prioritizing victory over fun. It’s important to have objective measures of success. Sport is great because losing is real and unavoidable. But there needs to be a marrying of that with subjective measures of success, with a sense of achievement, and – critically – of progress.

In Raph Koster’s fabulous, “A Theory of Fun for Game Design,” Raph says that, “Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.” And I think that’s generally true of sport as well. At least, it certainly was for me. Victory was only really satisfying when it came as the result of comprehension and problem solving. That was what I loved about Ironman. It was less about pure athletic skill than it was a puzzle to be solved – nutrition, pacing, aerodynamics, and – above all else – preparation. Success – victory – is certainly a part of measuring and proving comprehension, but it’s not the only way. Understanding the many ways that players can derive this sense of satisfaction from competitive games is a growing area of research. It’s why game companies are increasingly focused on UXR (User Experience Research) and why you’re as likely to find a psychology major as an computer science major at gaming companies with a focus on PvP games like Riot.

Beating the game” has been a core measure of success in games for eons. But many – or even most – of the classic and enduring games of all time – Chess, Go, Bridge, and others – exist without levels and without end. Our goal is to make Apex a “ten-year” game. And to do that will require solving the problems that Iwata outlines. Because avoiding them is not an option; the challenges he describes are core to what we are and to what makes us special. As Iwata himself says, “there has to be another way.” This book provides a fantastic template for how to think about solving those problems. For finding that other way.

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